Turlough O'Carolan

Toirdhealbhach O'Cearbhallain

'Wider than the heavens is my fame...I am the best as regards the power of my fingers...nobody will ever be found to match me..."

'Ludicrous tales delighted him..."
Charles O'Connor

"Est homo qui potest bibere"
(He is a man who is able to drink!)
Jonathan Swift

In Ireland about 300 years ago, there lived a harpist, singer and composer by the name of Turlough 'O Carolan. He was born in West Meath around 1670. When he was eighteen, he caught small pox, a disease which was usually fatal at the time. His life was spared, but he was left permanently blind. Turlough's blindness, in a way, was a blessing because it awakened in him a hidden gift for music. A local noble woman by the name of Mary Fitzgerald McDermott Rowe saw to it that he was trained in the Irish harp, gave him a horse and guide and sent him on his way.

At first, he was not considered a great musician. (The ancient bards were supposed to have started their training when they were still young children and Carolan didn't start until he was an adult.) One of his first patrons, a Squire Reynolds, suggested that he try his hand at composition. His first work, "Si Beag, Si Mor", resulted from this suggestion. After he finished the composition, his fame was spread throughout all of Ireland and he started his career.

The way Carolan made his living, was to travel from big house to big house, from castle to castle, entertaining the households and the friends of some of the most famous and wealthy people of Ireland at the time. Often, as a special favor, he would write a tune in honor of the man of the house, or his wife or daughter. He called his lively tunes in honor of people "Planxties". He was very successful and people would often delay weddings and funerals until he could be present to play the appropriate tune.

When Carolan was a very young man, before his blindness, he met and fell in love with a young woman named Bridget Cruise. Bridget was part of a noble family and Carolan's family was of skilled laborers, so a match could never be made. And even though he went on to live a very successful life, he never forgot Bridget and wrote 4 tunes in her honor. He met her again near the end of his life, when he was on his way to a religious retreat in County Donegal. He happened to touch a woman's hand and instantly recognized that it was hers.

Carolan was also famous for his love of drink, especially Irish whiskey. He wrote a tune in honor of whiskey. As he was dying, he called for one last cup of his favorite brew. His dying words were said to be "the drink and I have been friends for so long, it would be a pity for me to leave without one last kiss." And he died.


As a man he was:
-conscious of his position, convivial, high spirited, a serious drinker, irascible, proud, a teacher, a lover of ludicrous tales, a quick wit, a composer for Gael and Gall, a clever versifier, a skilled satirist, a flirt, and a liturgical musician.

His poetry was:
-secondary to the music, mostly in Irish, dignified and polished, described men and respectable women and their ancestry, hospitality and kindness (traditional court themes), had a cheerful and "carpe diem" attitude, is characterized by internal consonant and vowel rhyme and assonance of stressed vowels.

His poetry
translations by Dennis Doyle

Ode to Whiskey

A h- uisci chroidhe na n-anamann!
Leagan tú ar la'r me',
Bim gan chéill, gan aithne,
'Sé an t-eachrann do b'fhearr liom.
Bíonn mo chóta stracaighthe,
Agus caillim leat mo charabhat,
Is bíodh a ndéarnais maith leat,
Acht teangmhaigh liom amárach!

O Whiskey, heart of my soul!

You always knock me down.
I'm without sense, I don't know where I am!
You'd think that I'd take the warning.

My coat is all torn up and
I lost my cravat because of you.
But let all you've done be forgiven,
So long as you meet me again tomorrow!

Miss Featherston (Carolan's Devotion)
Originally in English:

On a fair Sunday morning devoted to be
Attentive to a sermon that was ordered for me,
I met a fresh rose on the road by decree,
And though Mass was my notion, my devotion was she

Welcome, fare Lily, white and red,
Welcome was every word that we said,
Welcome bright angel of noble degree.

I wish you would love and that I were with thee,
(I pray don't frown at me with mouth or eye.)
So I told the fair maiden with heart full of glee,
Though Mass was my notion, my devotion was she.

Planxty Fanny Power (Mrs. Trench)
(Bean an Trinsigh)

Is mian liom labhairt ar óig-mhaol shuairc.
Is uaisle geanúla gnaol agus cáil,
Do bhios insa mbaile tá ag cuan Loch Riabhach
Táim buioch nar casadh mé laimh léi.

Is aerach is tréitheach an mhaighdean bhreá scafánta
Grá chroí na héireann an péarla deas galanta
´Olaidh go tréan is ná déanaigi failli,
Faoi thuairim Fainí nion Dáibhi.

Siúd í an eala tá ag taobh a' chuain
Na sluaite fear dul in éag dá grá
'S í Faini deas geanúll na ndlaoi is na ndual
Fuar bua go minic le haille.

Nár fhága mé an saol ó go mbi mé go ceannasach
A' damhsa go h'aerach is mé ar do bhainis sé
Fógraim an té sin a d'iarrfadh aon spré leat,
A phéarla leanbh na mbán ghlac.

I wish to speak of a gracious young lady,
A loveable lady of beauty and reputation,
Who lives in the town near the bay of Loch Riabhach.
I'm thankful that I had the chance to meet her.

She's lively, airy, - a cultured fine maiden,
The love of all Ireland and a nice cultured pearl.
O drink up now and don't be slack!
To Fanny, the daughter of David.

She is the swan at the edge of the bay,
Crowds of men are dying for her love.
She's nice gentle Fanny of locks and braids,
Who often gets the prize for beauty.

May I not leave this world, if I may be so bold,
Unless I can first cheerfully dance at your wedding feast.
I challenge the one who would ever ask a dowry for you,
O Pearl-Child of white hands.

Music by Carolan recorded by Dennis Doyle: